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Amherst Civil War memorial honors family who fought for Union

  • Robert Romer, a member of the Historical Commission, speaks May 13, 2017 during a ceremony to dedicate a recently installed monument at West Cemetery in Amherst honoring a family of black soldiers who fought for the Union during the Civil War. The memorial, which also serves as a gravestone for the final resting place for Christopher Thompson, a member of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry who died in 1898, was put in place in January by the Historical Commission. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Meg Vickery, chair of the Historical Commission, speaks May 13, 2017 during a ceremony to dedicate a recently installed monument at West Cemetery in Amherst honoring a family of black soldiers who fought for the Union during the Civil War. The memorial, which also serves as a gravestone for the final resting place for Christopher Thompson, a member of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry who died in 1898, was put in place in January by the Historical Commission. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • William Harris of Houston, left, and his mother, Edythe Harris of Greenfield, applaud May 13, 2017 during a ceremony to dedicate a recently installed monument at West Cemetery in Amherst honoring a family of black soldiers who fought for the Union during the Civil War. Edythe Harris' great-great grandfather Christopher Thompson, a member of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry who died in 1898, is one of those soldiers. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Edythe Harris of Greenfield, left, her daughter Lori Benabou of Princeton, N.J., and Steven Bateman of Pittsfield converse May 13, 2017 following a ceremony to dedicate a recently installed monument at West Cemetery in Amherst honoring a family of black soldiers who fought for the Union during the Civil War, including Christopher Thompson, a member of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry who died in 1898. Thompson is Harris' great-great grandfather and Benabou and Bateman's great-great-great grandfather. The memorial, which also serves as a gravestone for the final resting place for Thompson, is shown, at right. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Lori Benabou of Princeton, N.J. is shown May 13, 2017 during a ceremony to dedicate a recently installed monument at West Cemetery in Amherst honoring a family of black soldiers who fought for the Union during the Civil War, including Christopher Thompson, a member of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry who died in 1898. Thompson is Benabou's great-great-great grandfather. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A recently installed monument at West Cemetery in Amherst, shown May 13, 2017, honors a family of black soldiers who fought for the Union during the Civil War. The memorial, which also serves as a gravestone for the final resting place for Christopher Thompson, a member of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry who died in 1898, was put in place in January by the Historical Commission. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Lori Benabou of Princeton, N.J., left, and Robert Romer, a member of the Historical Commission, converse May 13, 2017 following a ceremony to dedicate a recently installed monument at West Cemetery in Amherst honoring a family of black soldiers who fought for the Union during the Civil War. One of those soldiers is Christopher Thompson, a member of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry who died in 1898. Thompson is Benabou's great-great-great grandfather. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Robert Romer, a member of the Historical Commission, left, and Edythe Harris of Greenfield converse May 13, 2017 following a ceremony to dedicate a recently installed monument at West Cemetery in Amherst honoring a family of black soldiers who fought for the Union during the Civil War. One of those soldiers is Christopher Thompson, a member of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry who died in 1898. Thompson is Harris' great-great grandfather. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • William Harris of Houstan, Texas, center left, and his mother Edythe Harris of Greenfield applaud May 13, 2017 during a ceremony to dedicate a recently installed monument at West Cemetery in Amherst honoring a family of black soldiers who fought for the Union during the Civil War. Edythe Harris' great-great grandfather Christopher Thompson, a member of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry who died in 1898, is one of those soldiers. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Edythe Harris of Greenfield, left, her daughter Lori Benabou of Princeton, N.J., and Steven Bateman of Pittsfield converse May 13, 2017 following a ceremony to dedicate a recently installed monument at West Cemetery in Amherst honoring a family of black soldiers who fought for the Union during the Civil War, including Christopher Thompson, a member of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry who died in 1898. Thompson is Harris' great-great grandfather and Benabou and Bateman's great-great-great grandfather. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • William Harris of Houston speaks Saturday during a ceremony to dedicate a recently installed monument at West Cemetery in Amherst honoring a family of black soldiers who fought for the Union during the Civil War. The memorial also serves as a gravestone for the final resting place of Christopher Thompson, a member of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry who died in 1898. Harris is Thompson's great-great-great-grandson. Looking on are Reynolds Winslow, left, of Chicopee and Steven Connor, director of Central Hampshire Veterans' Services. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A ceremony dedicating a recently installed monument at West Cemetery in Amherst is held May 13, 2017 to honor a family of black soldiers who fought for the Union during the Civil War. The memorial, which also serves as a gravestone for the final resting place for Christopher Thompson, a member of the 5th Massachusetts Calvary who died in 1898, was put in place in January by the Historical Commission.



@kate_ashworth
Thursday, May 18, 2017

AMHERST — Before the Civil War, Christopher Thompson was a free black man caring for his farm in Pelham with his wife and four children. But once the Civil War broke out, Thompson joined the 5th Massachusetts Calvary to fight for the Union.

Generations later, Christopher Thompson’s great-great-great-grandson, William Harris, told the story of his family ties to the Civil War.

Harris, of Houston, stood by a monument Saturday in Amherst’s West Cemetery honoring Thompson and his family. The memorial also serves as a headstone for the final resting place for Thompson, who died in 1898.

The rear of the headstone reads: “An Amherst family that fought for the freedom of the Civil War.” It also lists the five Thompsons who served: James, a member of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, and 5th Massachusetts Cavalry members Christopher, his brothers Henry and John, and John’s son Charles.

Harris spoke of the history of the Civil War and described why combat for black soldiers and their white Union officers was dangerous. If captured by the Confederate army, black captives were returned to previous owners, sold into slavery or hanged, while white officers were considered “outlaws” in the rebels’ eyes and Jcould be executed upon capture, Harris said.

They were paid less than white soldiers, worked dirty jobs such as digging trenches, were issued inferior equipment and received inadequate medical treatment, Harris said.

“While we don’t know exactly what they were thinking or feeling, one can imagine a sense of duty and passion to defend their liberties as a reason for volunteering to serve for the Union,” he said. “This was not only a battle for their freedoms, but also a battle for the hope of a better life for their descendants.”

John Thompson died due to injuries in training. James Thompson was injured during the assault on Fort Wagner, though Harris said he was fortunate to survive.

Near the close of the war, while the Thompson family was in Texas, Harris said, Henry Thompson died from illness. When the war ended, the three remaining Thompsons had to travel back from the Lone Star State to Massachusetts.

“Can you imagine being black soldiers at the close of the Civil War — in Texas — and you had to find your way back to Massachusetts?” Harris said.

Much of the family’s research into its Civil War roots was done by Harris’ brother Daniel Bradford Harris, who is now deceased.

Also in attendance Saturday were Christopher’s great-great-granddaughter Edythe Harris, of Greenfield, and her daughter Lori Benabou, of New Jersey.

“Back then people of color weren’t very well recognized,” Edythe Harris told the Gazette Sunday evening. “A lot of people didn’t realize that they paid a price, too, of their lives, and they played a big part in that war.”

In addition to her son and daughter, she said, relatives came from Springfield, Pittsfield, Greenfield and Connecticut.

“We were very grateful, the whole family was,” Edythe Harris said. 

The memorial was put in place in January by the Historical Commission, which received $5,000 in Community Preservation Act funding for the project the previous May.

Chairwoman of the Amherst Historical Commission Meg Vickery said the memorial came in large part due to the efforts of Robert Romer, who began researching slavery in the 1700s and wrote a book based on his findings, “Slavery in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts.” Romer’s research led him to slaves’ descendants and Civil War soldiers. Through an article in the Gazette, Romer and the Harris family connected.

Vickery said while sometimes projects don’t work out and others are not very evident to the public at large, the memorial is an example of the work the commission can do.

“But like the Tiffany window that sparkles on East Pleasant street every night, this is a piece of history claimed and offered by the Historical Commission in the service of the townsfolk of Amherst,” she said. “In this case, this is history recovered and etched in stone, a proud reminder of the service of the Thompson family during the Civil War.”

Harris said he believes his ancestors fought for a better life for their descendants. He noted the difference between the generations, from Christopher, who was illiterate — an “X” marked his signature on many documents — to Harris, who is now CEO of the nonprofit Space Center Houston.

“I’d like to think their dreams came true,” Harris said. “We’ve all achieved that American dream.”

Staff writer Dusty Christensen contributed to this report.